Saturday, November 28, 2015

Reading the Acknowledgments

Do you read the acknowledgments pages in books? Some may find them tedious, but I always read them, sometimes before I read the book itself. I find them fascinating. I like to know: Who do they mention? Many people or a few? Do I recognize any of the names? (The thought is probably unfair, but I am both impressed by mention of “big names” – other authors – and suspicious that the acknowledger is namedropping so we know they know famous writers….) What do they say about their family members? (Is there any new way to thank one’s spouse or significant other?). One reason I enjoy reading acknowledgments is that, like blurbs, they sketch out the network of connections that the author in question, along with other authors, is part of. Readers can generally see how well connected (or not) an author is by seeing who blurbs her or him, and who is acknowledged by her or him. In addition to the content of the acknowledgments, the tone and style are of interest. Some are straightforward, some slightly intense or even emotional, some lighthearted, and some humorous. These choices are also of interest to me. Oh, and you could probably guess this: I also read the front and back jacket flaps with great interest, and examine the author’s brief self-portrayal in the biography on the back flap. Photos are also of interest (but how do all authors, even those of middle or advanced age, look so young and polished? Old photos? Make-up and hairstyling? Gentle photoshopping?).

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

President Obama and Marilynne Robinson in Conversation

What an unexpected and enjoyable experience it was to read a two-part conversation in the New York Review of Books (NYR) (Nov. 5 and Nov. 19 issues) between President Obama and writer Marilynne Robinson! At first the idea of Obama and a writer sitting down for a conversation such as this one was surprising. But upon further thought, it made perfect sense. Not everybody reading this will agree with everything President Obama has said or done, and I don’t always agree with him, but I do consider him as a person and leader deeply concerned with moral issues. And Marilynne Robinson is known not only for her fine books but for their explorations of moral issues. Obama and Robinson had met before, and hit it off. At the beginning of the conversation, Obama says that he doesn’t often enough get a chance to sit down with someone he enjoys and is interested in, and “have a conversation with them about some of the broader cultural forces that shape our democracy and shape our ideas, and shape how we feel about citizenship and the direction our country should be going in.” He goes on to say how much he loves Robinson’s writings, starting with the novel “Gilead” and most recently the essay “Fear,” published in the NYR (Sept. 24, 2015), and collected in her new book of essays, “The Givenness of Things.” The conversation is wide-ranging, and includes discussion of, among other topics, Robinson’s background and values; her books and why and how she wrote them; the importance of books; faith; fear; education; government; the Midwest; Europe; the dangerous idea of “the sinister other”; and the gap between “goodness and decency and common sense on the ground, and…rigid, dogmatic, often mean-spirited politics” (Obama). It is a thoughtful conversation, and reminds us of Obama’s reflective side. For those who are interested in Robinson’s books: her best-known novels are “Housekeeping” (1980), “Gilead” (2004); “Home” (2008); and “Lila” (2014). I read and admired “Housekeeping” and thereafter seldom read Robinson because she only published nonfiction for over 20 years, but then she came out with the three other novels I just listed, which form a sort of trilogy. I posted here on “Lila” (2/23/15), which I found strikingly original and compelling, and which I highly recommend. To get back to the conversation between President Obama and Marilynne Robinson: New York magazine said it made them think that Obama’s post-presidency years were going to be very interesting, and I concur with that prediction.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

"Everybody Rise," by Stephanie Clifford -- A Twenty-First Century "House of Mirth"?

The beautifully written and heartbreaking Edith Wharton novel “The House of Mirth” (1905) is one of my all-time favorite books, one I have read many times and taught several times. A novel I just finished, “Everybody Rise” (St. Martin’s, 2015), by Stephanie Clifford, is clearly and intentionally modeled on the Wharton novel. It too features a young woman in New York who wants to be part of high society, to marry well, and to ensure a secure future. Both Wharton’s Lily Bart and Clifford’s Evelyn Beegan use their beauty and social skills, and a large amount of strategy, to connect to the arbiters of New York society, and both believe that they can achieve a place in that society. Lily Bart has a head start with her connections, but ultimately is not able to succeed in her quest. And even in the 21st century, the hierarchy is too rigid, and the rules are too subtle and too exclusive for social-climbing young women such as Evelyn to have much of a chance. Further complicating the picture, both Lily and Evelyn find themselves spending large quantities of money they don’t have on clothes, travel, charity events, and in Lily’s case, gambling; both end up in deep debt. Both make miscalculations and mistakes along the way. Each of their lives spirals downward in a way that is terrible for the reader to witness. (I don’t want to give away details, but I will say that Evelyn’s story has a less devastating ending than Lily’s story does.) But despite these similarities, I have to make it clear that “Everybody Rise,” while being an interesting and sometimes acute depiction of the power of social class roles, is no “House of Mirth.” It is reasonably well written, and provides many intriguing (and sometimes distressing) specific details about the lives of the society elite in contemporary New York, but it lacks the larger themes and the astonishingly powerful writing of Wharton’s novel. Of course that is an extremely high standard, and although the author herself invites a comparison by choosing to write the story of a contemporary Lily, it is hardly fair for readers to make this comparison. (But of course that is exactly what I am doing here....) “Everybody Rise” starts off as quite entertaining, almost lighthearted, then gradually enters “I can’t take my eyes off this horrible situation” territory. It provides a useful and illuminating exploration of the role of social class at this level of society. I am interested in the workings of social class, and have written academic articles about the topic, so this novel appealed to me on that level, as well as on a human interest level (and OK, I admit it, a little of the same somewhat "guilty pleasure" interest that I sometimes feel on reading Vanity Fair articles about the wealthy and elite). I think that other readers who are interested in New York City life, the culture and workings of the social elite, and/or the lives of young women today, will also find this novel worth reading.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

"The Art of Memoir," by Mary Karr

Mary Karr is the author of three shocking, painful, heartbreaking, beautifully written memoirs (“The Liars’ Club,” “Cherry,” and “Lit”). I have read and admired all three. She has also taught memoir writing for thirty years. These facts, along with my increasing interest in memoir over the past 15 years or so (yes, I know, along with many other readers), drew me to her new book, “The Art of Memoir” (Harper, 2015). I have to say that although I am not sorry to have read it, I found it a bit disappointing. It seems a bit cobbled together (consisting of many short and mostly freestanding chapters). Much of it, especially the instructional elements, seems a bit stale. The parts I liked best were her discussions of others’ memoirs, many of which she has taught and clearly knows inside out. Some of her favorite memoirists discussed in this book include Maxine Hong Kingston, Mary McCarthy, George Orwell, Frank McCourt, Maya Angelou, Vladimir Nabokov, Michael Herr, Frank Conroy, Cheryl Strayed, Geoffrey Wolff, and Tobias Wolf, most of whose memoirs I too have read and valued. There is also a generous list of memoirs at the end of the book. Despite my less-than-completely-enthusiastic comments at the beginning of this post, I do feel this book could be of interest and useful to aspiring memoirists and to those of us readers who seek out literary memoirs.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

"A Window Opens," by Elisabeth Egan

“A Window Opens” (Simon and Schuster, 2015), by Elisabeth Egan, is a light-ish, moderately enjoyable, but fairly predictable novel in the growing “women trying to balance home and work and everything else” genre. Alice Pearse refers to the difficulties of trying to do it all and have it all, but because of the cushion of an almost unbelievably excellent nanny, a flawed-but-basically excellent husband and father, back-up support from Alice’s parents, seemingly extremely well-adjusted children, and slight money problems that turn out not to be too serious, the difficulties are somewhat diluted. As a committed feminist, I would be the last to dismiss the problems encountered by women (and men) balancing careers and families, with woefully inadequate societal support systems that the United States should be ashamed of. It is just that this story doesn’t really make readers feel how hard this situation can be. There is also a whiff of building the story around issues: not only the work-life balance issue, but also that of soul-less corporate America (tech version), here in the guise of something ostensibly, initially, positive but then not (a business about reading electronically that turns into a business about video games), but that the author (rightfully) depicts as clearly completely inauthentic and hypocritical. Other issues addressed include how technology is affecting our world and especially children, sometimes negatively, and the dangers of alcohol addiction (although the novel seems to downplay the latter problem, and makes it seem easy for a person to stop drinking excessively). Alice is also facing the serious illness and then death of her beloved father. All of these are certainly very real parts of the life of a contemporary woman in New York City (living in the suburbs, working in the city) and elsewhere, and perfectly legitimate plot points and themes, but somehow it seems that they are a bit artificially inserted into the story as representatives of various issues.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

"Mary Coin," by Marisa Silver - What Was Behind that Famous Photo?

Usually I decide what to read by reading (many) book reviews, and by choosing the latest books by my already favorite writers. But of course I also browse in bookstores and libraries and sometimes find books that surprise and impress me. That is how, when I wanted a book-on-CD for a recent short road trip, I found in my local library the novel “Mary Coin” (2013, Penguin Audio) by Marisa Silver. What initially caught my attention was the (slightly altered) photo on the front of the CD case: the famous 1936 Dorothea Lange photo, titled “Migrant Mother,” of a poor woman and her children in the agricultural Central Valley of California, working as pickers, during the Depression era. The actual woman in the photo was later found to be Florence Owens Thompson; she and her family had very mixed feelings about the fame of the photo. Marisa Silver takes this basic story and tells a novelized version of it from the perspectives of three main characters over many years, before, during, and after the taking of the photo. The first is the woman in the photo, here named Mary Coin. The second is the photographer, here called Vera Dare. The third is a professor, Walker Dodge, who is, he finds, probably connected to the story through a long-ago secret, and who is now investigating the background of everyone involved, out of both academic and personal interest. The novel ranges back and forth among these stories, and back and forth in time. The story is often sad -- especially about the brutal poverty that some of the characters experienced -- but compelling, and the characters held my interest. It is of particular interest to see how women at the time, with and without money, often had to take on much of the burden of survival for themselves and their families. In their own separate ways, both of the two main women characters were incredibly courageous. The reminders of this painful time period -- for women, men, and children -- in American history are chilling.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

"The Prize," by Jill Bialosky - Too Much Angst about Too Little

Sometimes I am about to post a less-than-enthusiastic review of a novel, and then question my right to pronounce judgment on a kind of writing that I would never be able to do myself. I write academic articles, books, and conference papers, and I write book reviews, including in these posts. But I don’t have the gift of being able to write fiction. (I wish I did! But I long ago accepted that I do not.) So if someone has produced even a decent effort at a novel or short story, it seems presumptuous of me to criticize it. But then I tell myself that everyone has her or his own role, and the role of the book reviewer or critic or blogger is to provide a sense of a book and its strengths and weaknesses, along with one’s personal response to the book. This is a conflict I have struggled with before, but from time to time I revisit it. This time it is a prologue to saying that I need to critique the novel I just finished, Jill Bialosky’s “The Prize” (Counterpoint, 2015), as it is a rather unsatisfying book. It is set in the art world, and the main character, Edward Darby, is a partner in a leading New York art gallery. The novel does provide a window into some of the workings of that world, which is of interest. But mostly it consists of the ditherings of that character, Edward. He is, perhaps, having a midlife crisis. He questions the meaning of his work, he sulks about his most famous artist’s work and her betrayal of him, he worries about his marriage and his wife, and simultaneously has an affair with another artist, but not without much guilt, much back and forth about whether he should or shouldn’t be having that affair. All of this is very angsty and trite, accompanied by anguished conversations that seem essentially lightweight and predictable, walks through Manhattan in the rain, various sojourns in various European cities, and plenty of time spent in hotel bars drinking and dissecting his feelings. But all of this just doesn’t amount to much, as nothing truly serious seems to be at stake. “The Prize” is reasonably well written, but just doesn’t seem to matter very much. (But I still feel a little nervy being so “judgy” about a reasonably decent novel that I could never write myself….) (Some readers might say it is a little late to be worrying about that, after a fair number of negative or at least less than positive reviews over the almost six years I have been writing this blog….) (I could even be accused of doing a little angsty dithering myself, right here in this post….)
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